Sure, airline commissions are gone, the Web and the marketing clout of online travel agencies have helped put traditional agencies under tremendous pressure, but there are business opportunities for agencies that engage consumers in new ways and take advantage of the pain-in-the butt that online-travel planning has become.
In a presentation at the recent TravelCom conference in Atlanta, Rob Torres, Google's managing director for travel, said Google research found that travelers spend 6.7 weeks searching for trips and they visit 8.1 websites on average before booking.
And trip-planning site TravelMuse recently cited statistics from UpTake.com that consumers visit 25 websites on average "when planning a single vacation."
TravelMuse also cited an August 2008 study by TIA and American Express which found that 20 percent of travelers put in more than 10 hours of online-travel planning in researching their trips.
Who has that kind of time?
It's a jungle out there, whether it is researching a safari vacation or any other kind of getaway.
When researching a trip, consumers looking for deals have to wade through search engines, metasearch sites, supplier-direct websites, consolidators' offerings, opaque auction sites, online travel agency sites, trip-planning sites and hotel-review sites in a prolonged and confusing trip-research process.
It all reminds me of Priceline CEO Jeffery Boyd's appearance at a PhoCusWright conference in
2004 when he facetiously called for the formation of a new website, which he dubbed FarePile.com, to aggregate the offerings of metasearch aggregators like Kayak, SideStep, FareChase and Mobissimo.
And, the complexity of the trip-planning process isn't getting any easier with the advent of ancillary services and sometimes-hidden fees for checked bags, premium seats and lounge access.
In contrast, I emailed a traditional travel agency the other day about a trip to Israel, and the agency emailed me back letting me know that I could fly out of Newark and return to JFK for $897 on El Al, or I could take Austrian Airlines out of JFK with a stop in Vienna for around $777.
Simple as that. It probably would have taken me hours of frustrating searches and price comparisons to find these fares on my own. And, that's even before considering lodging choices and a car rental.
So travel agents have an opportunity if they can better market themselves as experts, traveler advocates and simplifiers of the trip-planning process.
Will they do it in new and creative ways?
Most probably won't, but the smart ones will. I see plenty of travel agencies promoting themselves and getting involved with consumers on Twitter and Facebook.
For example, here's an unofficial list, managed by Matt Parsons in London, of "the travel industry on Twitter."
I wrote about one way that travel companies might get involved in social media through A Twitter Summer Travel Stimulus Package.
That's the key. If travel agents want to tap into new audiences, then they have to frequent social media sites where the online bookers are.
Otherwise, with the trip-planning process getting more complex by the minute, we'll have to renew Boyd's call for the ultimate aggregation site, FarePile.com.